Marxist Materialism and Critical Race Theory: A Comparative
Analysis of Media and Cultural Influence on the Formation of
Stereotypes and Proliferation of Police Brutality against
Black Men
Devair Jeffries, Rhonda Jeffries
Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men, Volume 5, Number 2, Spring 2017, pp.
1-22 (Article)
Published by Indiana University Press
For additional information about this article
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Spectrum, 5(2), 1–22. Copyright © 2017 Trustees of Indiana University and The Ohio
State University. doi: 10.2979/spectrum.5.2.01
Marxist Materialism
and Critical Race
Theory: A Comparative
Analysis of Media and
Cultural Influence on the
Formation of Stereotypes
and Proliferation of Police
Brutality against Black Men
Devair Jeffries and Rhonda Jeffries
ABSTRACT: Using Marxist and Critical Race Theory frameworks to call codified culture into question, this essay explores how diverse modes of expression are crushed by the restraint of the individual and through a lack of variance that prohibits progress for Black males in American society. This essay critiques the capitalist structure that insists on the illusion of uniformity when it clearly benefits and operates from emphasizing difference. The article compares the impact of a consumerist frame of reference on career, residence, and material possessions; media technologies’ published messages and images that contribute to negative stereotypes; and the formation of style as an act
of naming or resisting with regard to the proliferation of questionable and brutal treatment of Black males by law enforcement agents, in particular, and society, in general.
2 S P ECT R UM 5 . 2
Horkheimer and Adorno (2001) employed a Marxist materialist frame of reference to analyze the political and economic policies and limitations of capitalism.
Their work uncovered the critical concerns and contradictions present in a presumed unified culture that concurrently imposes economic hierarchy. They theorized that a capitalist society generates a falsely universal culture manifested in the workplace, housing, and assets; presented in mass media productions; and fluctuated in the establishment of style. They also challenged the idea of “culture as
a common denominator” (p. 1115) since culture as common is not actually culture at all and requires that any differences and peculiarities be ignored.
Critical race theorists Delgado and Stelfancic (2012) argued that the allegedly equal United States’ legal system both contributes to and maintains the socioeconomic hierarchy that Horkheimer and Adorno critiqued. Delgado and Stelfancic specifically focused on how civil policy affects people of color. They explored practices whereby people of color are often targeted and/or evaluated by others and
among themselves based on their career, residence, and material possessions. Their research confronts the persuasive effects of media technologies’ published messages and images on stereotypically negative beliefs and behaviors among society toward people of color. Finally, they noted that the formation of style, as an act of naming or resisting something that already exists, usually excludes the distinct methods initiated by people of color that are either rejected or appropriated into a
unified and recognizable mainstream form.
These two theoretical frameworks call codified culture into question as diverse modes of expression are completely crushed by the restraint of the individual and the lack of variance and true progress. Why does the capitalist structure insist on the illusion of uniformity when it clearly benefits and operates from emphasizing difference? This article compares the impact of these two theoretical
frameworks on current news and media events, specifically focused on the mistreatment of Black males by police officers and the bias of media coverage representing Black males in American society.
Horkheimer and Adorno (2001) utilized a Marxist materialist perspective to examine systemic structures that affect political and economic policies. The materialist lens pioneered by Marx (1904) is grounded in an analysis of the created and maintained cultural “realities”—especially those surrounding labor and institutionalization—and the ways in which these practices are limiting. Their
Jeffries and Jeffries / Marxist Materialism and Critical Race Theory 3 pertinent research revealed the essential issues and contradictions present in attempting to establish a unified culture while simultaneously enforcing economic hierarchy.
They argued that a capitalist society creates a culture in which feigned universality is initiated in the workplace, housing, and affordable assets; conveyed in mass media productions; as well as implicit in the development of and the resistance to style.
Delgado and Stelfancic (2012) also used a critical approach to analyzing skewed structural policies that are regulated by law enforcement, manifested in the legal system, and portrayed in the media. Because race is one of the primary modes of the systemic categorization of difference, they argued that these societal policies intentionally target and disadvantage the othered races that are not in power. In contrast to the dominant White standard, these “other groups,” identified as “American Indians, Latinos, Asian Americans, and African Americans, are described as nonwhite” (p. 84). They explained the goal of Critical Race Theory to acknowledge flaws in the justice system that emphasizes racial difference:
Critical race theory not only dares to treat race as central to the law and policy of the United States, it dares to look beyond the popular belief that getting ridof racism means simply getting rid of ignorance, or encouraging everyone to get along. . . racism is part of the structure of legal institutions. (p. xviii)
This statement speaks to the significance placed on racial categorization inAmerican society that lingers because of years of racial tension and inequality. It further renders the misinformed and overly optimistic assumption that American citizens currently live in a post-racial society utterly false. Delgado and Stelfancic also weighed in on the materialist perspective as it analyzes hierarchal systems that benefit from villainizing people of color:
Materialists point out that conquering nations universally demonize their subjects to feel better about exploiting them. . . . For materialists, understanding the ebb and flow of racial progress and retrenchment requires a critical look at conditions prevailing at different times in history. Circumstances change so that one group finds it possible to seize advantage or exploit another. (pp. 21–22) Racial categorization permeates American culture and Black men are the targeted subjects that have been consistently demonized and labeled as violent and sexual predators. In the years “between 1882 to 1930” there were an estimated 1,850 lynchings of Black people in the South alone (Beck & Tolnay, 1990, p. 531). These statistics represent only the serious incidents that were recorded in southern states, during a limited time frame (as lynching undoubtedly occurred prior to and afterward), and exclude northern acts of violence against Black people. Further, the malicious practice of lynching and the power of the KKK were endorsed in early 4 S P ECT R UM 5 . 2
twentieth-century culture, with popular entertainment such as the revered pioneer film The Birth of a Nation (1915) being historically and still considered by some film scholars as one of the earliest American theatrical masterpieces. Racial tension in the years following 1930 continued to build and motivated the civil rights movement efforts of the 1950s and 1960s toward protests and actions for radicalchange. Despite these efforts, racial disparity continues as many racially motivated
crimes persist in the current era. The United States has consistently harbored discrimination
throughout its history, and this is currently present through instances
of injustice, especially with the excessive number of police brutality cases against
Black males in recent years. This proliferation of brutality is deconstructed in this
essay through the livelihood of Black men, the media messages about Black men,
and the style choices of Black men.
One of the first problematic systems Horkheimer and Adorno (2001)
examined is the social hierarchy that proliferates in the workplace, residence, and
in the enjoyment of luxuries or lack thereof. They argued that though culture is
hypothetically equal and synonymous, rank and difference is embedded within
one’s place of employment, which supports the acknowledgement of status both
at individual and institutional levels. They noted that “under monopoly all mass
culture is identical, and the lines of its artificial framework begin to show through.
The people at the top are no longer so interested in concealing monopoly: as its
violence becomes more open, so its power grows” (p. 1111). In this way, the unified
front (literally) that is supposed to be the workplace is actually just pretense
in which individuals assess their difference and use difference to their advantage
for authority or, conversely, are forced to function at a disadvantage. Further, the
hierarchy of living space and material possessions allows people to distinguish
themselves and assert privilege over one another. Those who survive cramped
urban apartments likely want to escape their environment, while those who
inhabit spacious suburban homes often happily return to their peaceful palaces.
Additionally, consumerism is capitalized on by creating the illusionary variance
of high end versus low end products such as cars, clothes, and other creature
comforts. The social hierarchy a capitalist society creates is inherently different,
as confirmed by workplace dynamics, housing conditions, and product envy or
comparison. Therefore, any positions and luxuries that are prized within a culture
are given power and elevated status.
“Media” is described as “all the means of communication such as newspapers,
radio, and TV,” including film as a form of popular entertainment (Agnes, 2003,
p. 402). The media’s influence in upholding systematic policies and societal bias is
effectively summarized by Horkheimer and Adorno (2001), who state that “. . . the
basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose
Jeffries and Jeffries / Marxist Materialism and Critical Race Theory 5
economic hold over society is greatest” (p. 1111). Therefore, citizens are presented
ideals about influence and power on a regular basis through a number of forms. The
vehicles of distraction and information (possibly one and the same) are displayed
as media further supports the unified culture of sameness charade. These types of
technologies, including radio, television, and film, even with seemingly diverse purposes,
attempt to instill commonality, “are all exactly the same,” and “have taught
[people] what to expect” (pp. 1111, 1114).
Radio, whether primarily talk or music, addresses similar current events
and plays identical songs across national markets. Television broadcasts cover
the same news, recent entertainment topics, and have uniformly formatted
shows. Even films, often intended as an escape from the harsh reality of the
laborious nature of the workplace and economic disparity, are embedded with
common notions and cultural themes, as well as the message that “those permanently
desperate situations which crush the spectator in ordinary life somehow
become the promise that one can go on living” (p. 1122). Horkheimer and
Adorno (2001) also proposed that “[a] technological rationale is the rationale
of domination itself. It is the coercive nature of society alienated from itself ”
(p. 1111). A society that claims to strive for universality utilizes media as
a means to mask the previously mentioned distinctions and benefit from the
appeasement and/or appeal of the exhausted and informed worker. According
to Delgado and Stefancic (2012):
Society constructs the social world through a series of tacit agreements mediated
by images, pictures, tales, blog postings, and other scripts. Much of what
we believe is ridiculous, self-serving, or cruel but is not perceived to be so at the
time. Attacking embedded preconceptions that marginalize others or conceal
their humanity is a legitimate function of all fiction. (p. 48)
These scholars urge people to challenge the images and representations they are fed
on a regular basis through various channels. Like the social hierarchy that determines
workplace status and etiquette, favorable living spaces, and the qualifications
for prized possessions, media technologies heavily influence the subjects that people
should be concerned about, the ways in which they should be concerned about
them, and validate the everyday existence and continuation of the utterly unbalanced
but seemingly sane status quo.
As previously mentioned, societal power is directly linked to status, albeit
in one’s position of employment; value, size, and/or location of their home and
6 S P ECT R UM 5 . 2
his/her abundance of assets. Rap/hip-hop, a Black male dominated genre of music,
both desists and assists in aiding this hierarchy of rank and possessions, methodically
masked as the status quo. On the one hand, many rappers negatively critique
societal pressures to spend heavily on status consumable goods in an effort to
achieve a revered position in society, and, on the other hand, they readily rhyme
about the extravagant and designer brand items they personally own in their lyrics.
Realist rappers who proclaim preeminent perceptions of Black urban life essentially
reinforce neoliberal ideals of middle-class mobility rather than decrying it
as their messages contradictorily suggest (Spence, 2011). They shout out their
(neighbor)hoods and their sentiments about escaping their unfortunate circumstances,
encouraging their listeners to do so as well, however their endorsement of a
lavish lifestyle likely discourages their audience to participate in the more probable
opportunity of education as an avenue out of or to transform the hood. In spite of
its sometimes contradictory messages, rap music often provides an insightful look
into the Black male’s psyche and his personal perspective on the Black experience
in American society. Delgado and Stefancic (2012) cite intellectuals who suggest
the positive influence that rap can have on its audience: “One scholar, Paul Butler,
proposes that the values of hip-hop music and culture could serve to reconstruct
criminal law and policing in directions that are more humane and relevant to the
black community” (p. 130).
In the late 1980s/early 1990s, American society was confronted by N.W.A.
(Niggaz wit Attitudes), whose most notable musical contribution, “Fuck tha
Police” (Ice Cube, MC Ren, & The D.O.C., 1988), left no questions as to their
stance on the unfair justice system and legal policies destroying the lives of countless
Black males. Their anger, stemming from the increased villainization of Black
men in the 1980s, is a by-product of the Reagan era’s conservative Republican
agenda (Burke, 2014). “In 1986, 3% of United States citizens reported drug
abuse as the nation’s most pressing problem; by 1989 this number had increased
to 64%” (Hartman & Golub, 1999 p. 424). Nunn (2002) noted the specific, targeted
assault on Black males through the anti-drug war that crafted legal policy
in direct response to the criminal justice system’s perception of Black males and
the communities in which they live, while Moriearty and Carson (2012) confirmed
this phenomenon as a direct result of Clinton’s codification of the war on
drugs/Black males initiated by Reagan. This drastic increase in racial profiling
of Black males as predators rather than victims of a bankrupt economic system
designed to enable penitentiary slavery led to a shift in the content of rap music
that assaults United States policy, a feature that persists into the contemporary
era. Kayne West’s (2004) acclaimed song “All Falls Down,” from his debut album,
Jeffries and Jeffries / Marxist Materialism and Critical Race Theory 7
The College Dropout, illustrated his economic woes as a Black man in American
Then I spent 400 bucks on this
Just to be like “nigga, you ain’t up on this!”
And I can’t even go to the grocery store
Without some ones that’s clean and a shirt with a team
It seems we living the American dream
But the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem
The prettiest people do the ugliest things
For the road to riches and diamond rings
We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us
We trying to buy back our 40 acres
And for that paper, look how low we a’stoop
Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe (West & Hill, 2004, track 4)
West’s lyrics remind the listener that little has changed theoretically and expose
the twisted need among Black men to define themselves by their financial and
physical power as a means to overcompensate for their skin color and the advantages
they have historically been denied. This “movement,” as defined by Cochran
(2015), potentially provides those rewards to young Black males who have “nothing
in a country that insinuates that males must be masculine and possess material
things in order to have true value” (p. 60). Stereotypical, hyper-masculine
imagery of this type is readily accepted as the definition for Black males as this
outdated notion feeds into the criminalization of Black men as hardened thugs/
beasts who instill White fear and should be caged or killed (Anthony, 2013).
J. Cole (2011), for example, further boasted about sitting in first class in his
song “Sideline Story,” while he acknowledged the subtle racial discrimination he
was privy to on the way to his seat: “Up in first class, laugh even though it’s not
funny. See a white man wonder how the fuck I got money” (track 6). While some
Black people have surpassed their former economic disenfranchisement through
careers in entertainment as well as other fields, the impulse to exhibit material
possessions as a signifier of progress often stems from continued social treatment
as inferior based on race, as implied by Cole’s lyrics and the last line of West’s
Scholars including Butler (2004), Cochran (2015), Spence, (2011), and
Washington (2015) validate the Black male perspective conveyed through hiphop
that calls into question the unfairness of civil policy and the legal system. This
research corroborates the complex experiences of Black males and humanizes the
challenges this demographic faces to define and deliver their daily performances
8 S P ECT R UM 5 . 2
amid limited opportunities for enactment. Hip-hop as a media outlet, while riddled
with dichotomies:
. . . exposes the current punishment regime as profoundly unfair. It demonstrates
this view by, if not glorifying law breakers, at least not viewing all criminals
with the disgust which the law seeks to attach to them. Hip-hop points out
the incoherence of the law’s construct of crime, and it attacks the legitimacy of
the system. (Butler, 2004, p. 985)
Despite its powerful message and delivery, hip-hop still struggles to significantly
impact change against the United States’ political landscape.
For many Black people, hip-hop music is a sermon that preaches the gospel;
that in the midst of its sexual exploitation, boasting, and contradiction, attempts to
unite a very broken Black community. Rappers’ lyrical perspectives offer the Black
male point of view on being targeted by police and the overall negative stereotypes
directed toward Black men. Another contribution from Cole (2013), “Crooked
Smile,” weighed in on the inherent corruption of the social and legal policies that
govern the United States. He implored the listener to “Look at the nation. That’s a
crooked smile even braces couldn’t straighten” (track 14). He continued, directly
admitting his distrust of law enforcement and the possibility of violence, stating,
“Hey officer, man, we don’t want nobody getting killed” (track 14). Likewise, West
viscerally opened his second verse to “All Falls Down” with:
I say fuck the police, that’s how I treat em
We buy our way out of jail, but we can’t buy freedom
We’ll buy a lot of clothes when we don’t really need em
Things we buy to cover up what’s inside
Cause they make us hate ourself and love they wealth
That’s why shortys hollering “where the ballas’ at?”
Drug dealer buy Jordans, crackhead buy crack
And a white man get paid off of all of that (West & Hill, 2004, track 4)
Always ending with a stiff punch in the face, West deconstructed multiple facets
of the system, including the apparent acts and performances marketed as culturally
Black that are White male–owned and –mandated. As West suggested, Black
voices are often controlled by White interests. Basu (2005) stated that “despite the
hypervisibility of a few African American rap artists and entrepreneurs, African
Americans lack control and ownership of their music” (p. 258); while Butler
(2004) noted the economic impact of rap as a business outlet, estimating its contribution
to far exceed billions within the United States economy. Furthermore, Basu
argued that:
Jeffries and Jeffries / Marxist Materialism and Critical Race Theory 9
[M]ajor corporate conglomerates control the music industry; that independents
are not really independent; and that the increasing fragmentation of
production economies results in exploitive and racist labor practices. Black rap
moguls exist, but the industry is white controlled and yields little of hip-hop’s
economic power to its black creators and entrepreneurs. (p. 258)
Therefore, while the most successful Black male rappers may gain financial
resources, it is unlikely that they are in a position to determine the content of the
music that will be produced and distributed across the airwaves. Furthermore, the
genre has been appropriated by all demographics, according to Stoute’s (2011)
examination of a hybrid consumerist experience whereby hip-hop is accessible for
ownership by all cultural groups that include anyone who identifies with the shared
values and knowledge associated with the music form.
Morpheus was “the most expert in counterfeiting forms, and in imitating
the walk, the countenance, and mode of speaking, even the clothes and
attitudes most characteristic of each. But he only imitated men.” (Bulfinch,
1859/2000, p. 58)
The ancient Greek god Morpheus as a representation of the Black male possesses
the ability to mimic any human form, appears in dreams, and is regularly called
upon and used by his father, Sonmus, but lacks his own agenda and true form. The
amalgamation of capitalism, masculinity, and race has trapped many Black males
into the Morpheus form, a state of residual self-projection controlled by an authority
figure. Similar to Gramsci’s (1971) use of hegemony, residual self-projection is
“an individual’s image constructed by outside forces. It makes an individual believe
that he is fine with the surrounding conditions, hence becoming incapable of
empowering himself ” (Morpheus, 2003, p. 12). The dreams and performances of
Morpheus as a Black male are seen in hip-hop compositions; however the influence
of the genre on the Black community is far-reaching and surely extends beyond
music. According to Butler (2004), “The culture transcends rap music: it includes
television, movies, fashion, theater, dance, and visual art” (p. 985).
Hip-hop manifests itself in various media forms that contribute to stereotypes
and negative attitudes creating the ideal atmosphere for police brutality.
Beginning with the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s, which implemented the
aggressive “Black Buck” stereotype, film has been another medium through which
Black masculinity has been portrayed. Benshoff and Griffin (2009) explained
the figure as “a brutal, animalistic, and hypermasculine African American who
10 S P ECT R UM 5 . 2
threatened White establishment because of his alleged sexual prowess” (p. 79).
Though this stereotype was fashioned in the early nineteenth century as a means
to discourage and overtly prevent miscegenation, it was also used as a device to
make the Black man a feared individual. This feared beast was justifiably lynched
by Whites well into the first half of the twentieth century if it/he transgressed any
laws or appeared to pose any threat, real or perceived. An adapted version of the
stereotypical “Black Buck” image continued to reshape itself and was especially
apparent in films like Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972), which championed desirable
“urban black protagonists. . . ladies’ men.” The latter is “a gangster film about a
sleek drug dealer,” which many young Black males emulated (Benshoff & Griffin,
2009, pp. 88–89).
While the 1980s attempted to ease racial tension with White and Black partners
in films like Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Lethal Weapon (1987), the charade
quickly ended with the pro-gangster films of the 1990s, including Boyz n the Hood
(1991), Juice (1992), and Belly (1998), which featured a new age “Black Buck,” with
some of these roles portrayed by famous rappers. This character type continued
into the 2000s with films including Paid in Full (2002), American Gangster (2007),
Brooklyn’s Finest (2009), and the highly renowned Training Day (2001), which won
Denzel Washington an Oscar. The troubling aspect of Washington’s achievement in
the role of a corrupt cop who intimidates his White male partner suggests that even
when a Black male is in a position of power he will resort to his violent and immoral
nature. Horkheimer and Adorno (2001) argued that “Movies and radio need no
longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology
in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce” (p. 1111). Even
though the majority of these films have Black directors, “the capitalist politics of
the Hollywood system frequently influence filmmakers into succumbing to stereotypical
constructions of Black characters” (Chan, 1998, p. 36). There are certainly
more positive roles played by Black men; Washington plays a complicated but compassionate
father the following year in John Q (2002) and motivational figures the
previous year in Remember the Titans (2001) and years later in The Great Debaters
(2007). However, iconic thuggish characters are celebrated by the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as authentic Black personalities. Using dynamic
movie trailers and crafting compelling performances, these stereotypically negative
role models appeal to and influence young Black male viewers.
Though it was greeted with tremendously positive reviews, especially from
the Black community, Fruitvale Station (2013) unsurprisingly failed to receive any
Academy Awards or other prestigious nominations. The film is directly based on
the true story of Oscar Grant, a young Black man from the Bay area of California
Jeffries and Jeffries / Marxist Materialism and Critical Race Theory 11
whose verbal response to a law enforcement officer quickly escalated to the vicious
physical restraint of him and his friends and, ultimately, his untimely death. Since
no cultural aspects are separate, there is an evident connection of Black representation
in music and film to that of local and national news broadcasts and their
coverage on incidents of racial tension and police brutality. Delgado and Stefancic
(2012) explained how dominant beliefs pervade all aspects of society: “Whiteness
is normative; it sets the standard in dozens of situations. . . . If literature and popular
culture reinforce white superiority, law and courts have done so as well” (p. 84)
and the media also plays its role in maintaining that tradition. Not many days pass
without local news reporting at least one Black male who has robbed, raped, or
otherwise threatened the purity of American society and is either on the wanted
persons list or in route to incarceration.
Most recently, famous comedian and iconic American dad Bill Cosby was
demonized as a serial rapist on the basis of 20–30-year-old allegations ranging from
aspiring but largely unknown actresses to women in high-profile positions including
celebrity models Janice Dickinson and Beverly Johnson (Ioannou, Mathis-
Lilley, & Hannon, 2014). While the considerable number of women divulging the
assaults they endured from Cosby is staggering and has been authenticated, what
is not to be downplayed is the vulnerable position many of them undoubtedly felt
they were in after their encounters with such a high-profile male celebrity, or the
sheer shame, embarrassment, or unfathomable emotions they likely faced from
experiencing such a traumatic event. It is also not to be ignored that Cosby’s charges
conveniently overlapped as a distraction to the tumultuous era of the largely Blackled
public outrage regarding the murders of countless Black men at the hands of
White police officers in recent years that erupted with the death of Michael Brown
on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, MO. The Michael Brown case was, for many in the
Black community, the absolute last straw. Much controversy and disagreement still
brews over the case after the perpetrating officer was never criminally charged for
the killing and was acquitted of any civil rights violations. Suggestive of the reactions
to the beating of Rodney King and acquittal of his lawful attackers in the early
1990s, violent rioters exploded after both Brown’s murder and his assailant’s acquittal,
some going as far as burning and destroying community businesses to express
their frustration. Innumerable peaceful protests also occurred all over the United
States, though the news predictably chose to focus on the vehement Black rioters
who posed a threat to the (unbalanced) societal equilibrium. This selective media
coverage served to further bolster the stereotype that Black men/people are violent,
dangerous, and deserving of ruthless, inhumane treatment from law enforcement
12 S P ECT R UM 5 . 2
The realization that highly publicized cases of police brutality are just a few
of the many has fueled the fire of protests, rioting, and political activism. The
events in Ferguson garnered both support and criticism from all races in America,
though an overwhelming amount of positive support manifested with the mantra
“Black Lives Matter,” as seen in protests from other countries. Even Congress
members of color in Washington, DC, were moved to stage a walk out in early
December after the abundance of problematic acquittals and injustices ( Jones,
2014). Students from Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC, also held a peaceful
protest entitled a “Die In” in December 2014 to express their disappointment
with the recent events of racial prejudice (Douglas, 2014). A looming frustration
exists from a present society that is repeating the history of the racially motivated
lynching of Black males, specifically in the instance of Eric Garner, who was strangled
to death while screaming “I can’t breathe” in July 2014 by a police officer in
Staten Island, NY. The leader of a group of Broadway performer protestors poetically
deconstructed the systematic policies that allowed this tragic event and permitted
other occurrences, as many of the officers have been acquitted and excused
for their ludicrous and prejudiced behavior. As a sizeable assembly surrounds the
leader and hums a melodic tune in the background reminiscent of an old spiritual,
he proclaims:
. . . “Routine arrests” are looking more and more like modern day lynchings
and I understand that’s it’s a slippery slope.
It’s your right to bear arms
but not to wrap bare arms around throats like rope,
like boa constrictors.
“I can’t breathe” being screamed in a whisper.
So, for those of you who wear blue, let’s get this clear,
I fear that until the injustice stops,
red, white, and blue will go down in history represented by the blood unjustly
stained on the uniform of cops.
We’ve got to stop with the speech blocks
Let’s discuss this. Put it to rest because it needs to get off our chests.
Let our mouths be our muskets,
words be the bullets not to be fussed with.
This is how we shoot back! This is how we shoot back. . . (WalkRunFly
Productions, 2014)
He then turns to face a NYPD station to make a final impression. His words express
the immediacy of police brutality and the necessity that it be addressed. He also
alludes to previous cases of injustices such as the Florida teens Jordan Davis and
Trayvon Martin, who were prey to the infamous and racially biased “Stand Your
Ground” laws that the state upholds. Ironically, the policy is found under the
Jeffries and Jeffries / Marxist Materialism and Critical Race Theory 13
Title 46 “Crimes” section in Chapter 776 as the thirteenth statute of legal guidelines.
What an unlucky and contradictory number that has been for Black people
in America. Formally termed “Justifiable Use of Force,” the policy lists a number
of reasons one is justified in using force in the vaguely outlined instances of securing
“[h]ome protection; [with the] use or threatened use of deadly force; [under
the] presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm” (Florida Senate, 2016).
Lawrence (2002) analyzed the difference between the lawful use of force allowed
to police officers and the thoughtless brutality that involves “malicious intent” and
“poor judgment” that many seek to camouflage when their behavior is queried
(p. 19). In the previously mentioned instances, having to endure a few moments
of loud hip-hop music and the sheer presence of a young Black male were threatening
enough that White males “justifiably” murdered them by the use of brutal
force. Meanwhile, media outlets question the intentions and actions of unarmed,
Black male victims, rather than carefully critique law enforcement’s interpretation
and use of policy. Martin’s clothing and possible marijuana use made him a “suspicious”
thug, Davis’s noisy gangster music was threatening the life of Michael
Dunn, and Brown allegedly stealing cigarettes and starting a cat fight warranted his
exit in a sad street scene.
Though sarcasm reveals the absurdity of the defense in these cases, injustice
did not originate nor does it stop there. One must not forget the 1955 murder of
Emmitt Till, who was viciously killed for allegedly exchanging flirtations with a
White woman. Nor should one fail to remember the wretched 1931 sentencing of
the Scottsboro Nine, a group of young Black men blamed for raping two White
women and not pardoned of their false convictions until 2013. A more recent
occurrence of a similar nature began in 1975 when Kwame Ajamu (then Ronnie
Bridgeman), his brother Wiley, and friend Ricky Jackson were wrongfully accused
of murder. Ajamu was granted parole in 2003, but his companions were just released
in November 2014, nearly 40 years later (Ortiz, 2014). As the final case included
in this non-comprehensive study, August 2014 was the date police targeted a
Black male father, Chris Lollie, while he was peacefully sitting in a public skyway
space waiting to pick up his children from a Minneapolis academy (Friedersdorf,
2014). In his personal video, his calm refusal to provide identification is heard as
he explains that he has not broken any laws. Rather than attempt to reason and
communicate with him, the police officer continues to antagonize him and requests
back-up. From there, the scene quickly escalates and it is clear that the officers are
eager for an arrest, as the screen goes black and both Lollie and his phone are forced
to the ground as the second officer repeatedly shouts “Put your hands behind your
back!” (Lollie, 2014). While a clear picture is no longer available, what follows is
difficult to hear as you are left to imagine Lollie’s position when he screams “Please
14 S P ECT R UM 5 . 2
no, don’t do this! I haven’t done anything wrong! Can somebody help me!? That’s
my kids, right there! My kids are right there. . .” (Lollie, 2014). Regardless of one’s
opinion about whether the majority of high-profile incidents reported in the news
are racially motivated or not, it is arguably impossible to watch and listen to this
man’s video without empathy and anger and at the least, deeming this act a social
Whether considering the acquittal of violent police officers or the undeserved
indictment and even murders of young Black males, it is an understatement to
assert that societal policy and the justice system are flawed. Further, cases of Black
on Black, as well as White on White, violence are rarely reported by the news since
they are not as enticing as the “divide and conquer” mentality on which racial tension
thrives. Social unrest flourishes from the inappropriate handling of these cases
and the one truth to the biased broadcasts is that there is a preponderance of Black
male recipients of animalistic, life-threatening violence from White males through
acts of police brutality that are exacerbated by unfair trials within the legal system.
Though it is debatable that some of the young Black men targeted by police brutality
may have actually committed a crime prior to their downfall, it is undeniable
that Black male bodies are consciously targeted and negatively constructed. Black
male behavior is viewed as comparatively oppositional to mainstream expectations,
therefore many White citizens and police officers feel the need to use excessive
force against what they pre-conceive as a threatening aggressor.
[In Spike Lee’s Bamboozled] when Delacroix’s ambitious assistant, Sloan
Hopkins, argues with her brother, Big Blak Afrika (né Julius, a rapper and
self-proclaimed revolutionary), the N word functions as a gauge of class conflict
in African-American communities. Sloan listens with growing impatience
to her brother’s mutterings, during which he manages to give the N word three
different meanings in the space of a few sentences. Addressing his own lack of
status he asks, “If I had some plantation drawers, I’d be a nigga, right?” After
Sloan says, that Big Blak’s rap group is embarrassing, he issues a half-hearted
defense of the “niggas in his crew” before conceding that “niggas ain’t perfect.”
(Asim, 2007, pp. 191–192)
While much controversy exists around the N word, it is for many, especially Black
males, a term used to rename and resist oppression. Similar to the highly politicized
nature of the N word, resistance to oppressive forces via hip-hop music manifests
in a plethora of social spaces, including style. Alim (2009) reiterated the impact
of hip-hop music on Black life and culture, but stressed the influence of the genre
Jeffries and Jeffries / Marxist Materialism and Critical Race Theory 15
on global stylization in speech, as well as dress, dance, and other forms of nonverbal
communication. An oppositional posture of hip-hop style against conventional
modes of dress is deconstructed by Morgado (2007) who utilized a system of rules
that ascribed meaning to individuals based on appearance. This body of research
suggests that hip-hop style is negatively associated with those who present themselves
speaking this identifying language and wearing these identifying clothes. An
additional point of analysis in the assessment of style is the appropriation of Black
hip-hop culture by White society. While this has contributed to the expansion of
hip-hop culture on marketing trends and mass consumerism, the fluidity of it renders
what is adopted by White mainstream society outdated and unwanted at the
time of its mass acceptance. The creators and curators of hip-hop never rest in the
quest to resist conventionality and the power structures that value such.
Horkheimer and Adorno (2001) suggested that in both the formation of and
opposition to style, similarity is proposed to reach a universal truth. They address
“the untruth of style” in stating that:
In the culture industry the notion of genuine style is seen to be the aesthetic
equivalent of domination. . . . The unity of style expresses in each case the different
structure of social power, and not the obscure experience of the oppressed
in which the general was enclosed. . . . That which is expressed is subsumed
through style into the dominant forms of generality in the hope that it will be
reconciled thus with the idea of true generality. (p. 1115)
Though “[f]or critical race theorists, objective truth does not exist. . . truth is a
social construct created to suit the purposes of the dominant group” (Delgado &
Stefancic, 2012, p. 104). In establishing style, characteristics are generalized and
categorized in order to project sameness and speak to the entire population. In
rejecting style, an effort is made to separate art or a particular mode of expression
from the whole and to challenge dominant truth and modes of functioning by proposing
a negative or opposing truth. However, in attempting to make a connection
or forge an identity with any other mode of being, one necessarily proves similarity,
which leads to style and insinuates commonality. Unfortunately, the effort to
diminish any perceived cultural differences as well as the attempt to establish similarities
(especially among oppressed/dominated groups versus privileged groups)
and separate oneself from the whole both lend themselves to comparison and cohesion.
In order for the concept of style to align with the overall goal of the collective,
the specific and individual is suppressed and mass or generalized culture is valued
and dominant. Style merely exists as a name for the specific guidelines and categories
under which similarities are expressed in conjunction and in conversation with
societal expectations.
16 S P ECT R UM 5 . 2
For many Black people, style manifests itself in wardrobe conformism and
“standard” English dialogue that appeases Whites and is considered within the
range of normality. Casual dress is often read as urban/ghetto and flashy for Black
men who may find themselves not taken seriously or even targeted more frequently
when they are not dressed in clothing styles appreciated by mainstream society.
Speech also builds barriers between racial groups and ostracizes Black males, as
their use of terms and phrases that deviate from standard grammar and sentence
structure is judged negatively in White spaces, especially within the workplace.
Style is contentiously displayed on the Starz series Survivor’s Remorse, a contemporary
dramedy largely dedicated to deconstructing the ebb and flow of race, class,
and gender conflicts for a nouveau riche Black basketball family. After the star basketball
player’s mother discusses spanking as a form of disciplining her son (Cam)
with the media, his cousin, who serves as his manager, has a phone conversation
with the team’s White owner where multiple levels of cultural conflict are at play:
Manager/Cousin: Mr. Flaherty, Good morning to you!
Mr. Flaherty/Owner: Only a man who has not yet seen the news would sound
this cheerful.
Manager/Cousin: Has there been another school shooting?
Mr. Flaherty/Owner: Worse. Turn on your favorite news channel.
Manager/Cousin: (Turns on TV) She used the word “beating?”
Mr. Flaherty/Owner: She said, “Cam is now who Cam is because she gave
him whoopings.”
Manager/Cousin: Well, whoopings and beatings—they’re not the same thing.
Mr. Flaherty/Owner: I don’t need a vernacular lesson. She said she whacked
him with many things not the least of which was Hot Wheels tracks. I am
being bombarded with emails. People are making phone calls—that’s how
horrified they are. . . . I can’t defend barbaric acts like hitting kids with extension
Manager/Cousin: We were practically grown by the time the cords came into
play. What like seven or eight. . . . I will write a statement.
Mr. Flaherty/Owner: I want to hear “I made a mistake” . . . I want you to escort
Cam and his contrite mother to a press conference at 2 o’clock to say those
(Later that day)
Mr. Flaherty/Owner: You know what my dad used to call me when I fucked
up? Dummy. So, push the conference to 5:00, dummy.
Manager/Cousin: On it.
Mr. Flaherty/Owner: And stop saying “on it.” You need to start communicating
in complete sentences.
Manager/Cousin: I am on it, Jimmy. I will do what I told you I’d do, Jimmy. I’ll
be there at 5:00, Jimmy.
Mr. Flaherty/Owner: All right, see you soon. (O’Malley, 2014)
Jeffries and Jeffries / Marxist Materialism and Critical Race Theory 17
Within this exchange Flaherty confidently offered his assumptions about the
proper discussion of discipline from the perspective of those in attendance at the
charity event where the statement was made and, more significantly, mainstream
American society, who viewed Cam’s mother’s use of vernacular and physical discipline
with disdain. Despite the mother’s apprehension about mingling with the
charity crowd and her overt attempt to dress appropriately for the event (using style
to insinuate commonality), her speech betrayed her dress, relegating her to ghetto
status. Flaherty, as a White male, further regulates Manager/Cousin’s speech when
he chastises his use of incomplete sentences as incompatible with the dialogue style
Flaherty preferred yet incongruently utilized in his own speech pattern.
The series significantly displays confrontations around race, class, and gender
and spends considerable time exploring the dynamics between two Black
male perspectives. Cam, as the young player earning millions, wants to ball
out, while his manager/cousin, who has married a resolute, middle-class Black
female, now ascribes to her values. Regardless of the social positioning of either
male, they both have strong desires to spend heavily on material possessions that
they believe are status transforming. Podoshen, Andrzejewski, and Hunt (2014)
noted the pronounced influence of hip-hop culture particularly on Blacks in the
United States and the preponderance among the demographic group to display
blatant materialism and consumption. Their survey revealed these trends despite
the conflict of hip-hop values with those championed in the civil rights movement
that were based on collective community activism as opposed to selfish
Social media is yet another significant outlet where the conflict of materialism
and race are on constant display. The communication patterns of young Black males
are readily accessed and often uncensored in terms of immediate, unfiltered insights.
One Black male offered his point of view via Facebook on the overcompensation
he feels is necessary to counter the negative perceptions of hip-hop culture and its
association with young Black males. In response to critiques of and negative events
related to racial profiling, Winthrop University graduate and current University of
New Hampshire employee Brandon Thomas (2014) admitted that he was hurt
by the jury decision to acquit Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Mike Brown.
Among other genuine thoughts, he offered: “I am typically overdressed because the
treatment I get is substantially better when I look that way. I watch the way I talk
around certain people because if I am too comfortable, I am accused of speaking,
‘ghetto’. . . .” This young Black male’s narrative exemplifies W. E. B. DuBois’s (1903)
concept of “double consciousness,” which articulates the inner thoughts one experiences
in direct confrontation with White society and reveals how history is currently
repeating itself.
18 S P ECT R UM 5 . 2
The notion that differences of skin color, class background, and cultural heritage
must be erased for justice and equality to prevail is a brand of popular false consciousness
that helps keep racist thinking and action intact.. . . Unfortunately,
as long as our society holds up a vision of democracy that requires the surrender
of bonds and ties to legacies folks hold dear, challenging racism and white
supremacy will seem like an action that diminishes and destabilizes. (hooks,
1995, p. 265)
With an emphasis on the need for change in the capitalist structure and carefully
crafted culture of American society, Delgado and Stefancic (2012) asserted that
people “of color should not try to fit into a flawed economic and political system
but transform it” (p. 68). Hooks similarly dismissed the idea that ignoring color
difference in order to simulate sameness is effective. She declared that it is flawed
to think that “a beloved community [can] exist only if we erased and forgot racial
difference” (p. 263). This research offers theoretical support that in regard to race
relations, realism must offset optimism and that attempts to devalue and disregard
the significance of racism is the very reason it is still an issue in the present day.
While many points about systemic fallacies are uncovered in their essay on
the culture industry, Horkheimer and Adorno (2001) conclude that the idea of
“culture as a common denominator” (p. 1115) is an illusion since culture as common
is not culture at all. In order to maintain a uniform civilization, any unique
and peculiar qualities are annihilated and ignored, unless of course they contribute
to and benefit the socioeconomic order of difference that keeps the world in its
standard deviation. The first facet of analysis that criticizes universality in culture
is the hierarchal assessment of human beings based on their career, residence, and
material possessions. This comparison and evaluation of difference clearly exposes
the deception of equality, as noted by hip-hop artists past and present. Another
arch of their argument is that media technologies compel people to think and
behave in certain ways that conform to the norm and discourage deviance. Also,
these mediums represent and promote people’s everyday existence and support
the idea that their experiences are sufficient and expected. These stereotypical representations
and ideal images are heard in music, seen in films and broadcast news,
and directly contribute to the Black experience in American society. Finally, the
creation and rejection of style is either trying to name the way in which culture is
formulated, or is reacting to and fighting against the style within the culture that
already exists. Therefore, both framing and shaming of style are in conversation
with one another and with dominant culture. These aforementioned categories
that surround the issue of maintaining mass culture emphasize the restraint of
Jeffries and Jeffries / Marxist Materialism and Critical Race Theory 19
the individual, of difference, and of true progress. Black men seemingly have the
dichotomous choice of either accepting prevailing stereotypes or assimilating to
White culture and conforming to standard policies about their dialogue, dress
code, and cultural values.
Conversely, Horkheimer and Adorno (2001) insisted that the beauty and
inspiration possible in diverse modes of expression are completely crushed and disregarded
in a mass, generalized culture. Delgado and Stefancic (2012) asserted that
the acknowledgment of and the attempt to understand difference are essential to
racial progress in United States civilization. It is only through open communication
and attention to the interests of one another that Blacks and Whites can heal from
issues like racial profiling, police brutality, and the like. While American society
thrives on the illusion of uniformity and considers itself post-racial, recent incidents
of police brutality against young Black males prove that these notions are bankrupt.
The ridiculous fact that this topic still warrants essential examination through academic
papers, political protests, or other forms of resistance indicates that true conformity
is a farce and Black males are suffering the full impact of this travesty. One
path to progress may be for Black males to forge a third space of civil and political
rights engagement that rejects submission to the vacuous materialism inherent in
the prevailing dichotomy of Black or White.
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DEVAIR JEFFRIES is a Wilson-Auzenne Fellow and PhD candidate in the
Department of Theatre Studies at Florida State University. She teaches “Introduction
to Theatre” and “World Theatre History” and her research focuses on contemporary
African American theater, specifically representation and racial violence using
Critical Race Theory and Black feminist theories. (
RHONDA BAYNES JEFFRIES is Associate Professor of curriculum studies in
the Department of Instruction & Teacher Education at the University of South
Carolina. She is the author of Performance Traditions among African American
Teachers and is co-editor of Black Women in the Field: Experiencing Ourselves and
Others through Qualitative Research. She teaches courses on curriculum diversity
and equity pedagogy, organizational change, and qualitative research methods.